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Satoshi Kon reveled in the exploration of the human psyche. Although the late director/animator’s work often leaned toward science-fiction, his investigations of society are embedded with critiques of modes of looking. In his directorial debut, Perfect Blue (1997), for example, the male gaze is interrogated as a stalker becomes obsessed with its pop-star protagonist.
With Tokyo Godfathers (2003), Kon instead examined the act of not looking at people living at the margins of society. In Japan, unhoused people are mostly ignored or altogether erased from the conversation. In recent news, preparations for the Olympic Games this summer have briefly turned the spotlight on the nation’s unhoused population. To make room for new infrastructure and avoid international embarrassment, street dwellers have been quietly pressured to disappear.
Tokyo Godfathers — which has recently been restored and re-released — openly denounces this attitude. The story centers on three unhoused people in Tokyo: the uncouth yet earnest Gin (Tōru Emori), who laments the loss of his family; Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), a middle-aged transgender woman longing to be a mother; and Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a teen runaway with a troubled relationship with her father. On Christmas Eve, they find a baby dumped in a garbage area and decide to show her some love before embarking on a quest to return her to her rightful parents.
Kon’s career was cut short by his unexpected death in 2010 from pancreatic cancer, yet each of his films is a creative gem of chiseled details; their depth and complexity are notable among not only Japan’s animation industry but the world’s. One of Kon’s characteristic strengths was his ability to elude genre conventions. Tokyo Godfathers plays out as a drama but it’s enriched with perfectly calibrated comic relief that deftly livens up the somber story. It’s a fable of serendipitous encounters, of strokes of luck, which counterbalance both the harshness of life and the demons the three main characters battle.
Tokyo Godfathers ultimately serves to correct perceptions common around the world of unhoused people, often derided as a “burden on society” who don’t warrant the same consideration as others; Kon’s sociopolitical critique aims to right a wrong. Leaving aside any sappy rhetoric, Kon — together with Cowboy Bebop’s screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto — devises an edifying Christmas carol that doubles as a contemporary tale of humanist piety.
Following the success of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2018 film Shoplifters, which dramatized the darker side of poverty in Japan, this is the ideal time to rediscover and celebrate Tokyo Godfathers, a film that looks with tenderness at those invisible street dwellers who are decisively pushed out of the frame.